Imagined (or Extended) Contact: A Research Note

This  is a revised version of a piece I wrote a couple of years ago, but never got around to revising. I’ve fished it out, before it gets lost forever. It’s in the general area of Social Developmental Psychology, but is slightly off my specific field – so not something I’d be looking to publish formally, but worth making accessible, I feel.

As I understand it, one of the seminal papers on intergroup contact was Allport (1954). Allport showed that contact with a group twowards whose members you are prejudiced, can reduce that prejudice.  Similar effects have been found for imagined contact (achieved via imagining pleasant contact with an outgroup member), (Crisp,  Stathi,  Turner and  Husnu, 2008), and for extended contact (learning about an ingroup member’s pleasant contact with the outgroup can improve attitudes) (Wright, Aron, and McLaughlin-Volpe, 1997).  For present purposes, an ingroup member is someone who belongs to ‘your group’ (race, religion, gender, youth group, school et al.), while an outgroup member is someone who belongs to a different group at that level. The basic finding behind research in this area is that contact (be it actual, imagined, or extended) can improve relations with outgroup members, and reduce anxiety typically induced at the thought of meeting them.

The recent work, that I want to make the topic of this note, is that which looks at imagined and extended contact between “ingroup members”, and those with disabilities (outgroup members…). This research has been done with adults, and with children (see for example, Cameron, Rutland, & Brown, 2007). I would like to offer a personal perspective on this research (I have had a stroke, resulting in hemiplegia).

The first question I wish to ask is whether ‘people with disabilities’ constitutes a group in any meaningful psychological sense. We need to ask this from both ends. Do ‘able-bodied’ people categorize everyone they come across with a disability as  belonging to (the same, stigmatized) outgroup? Can they do this readily and easily, to activate unhelpful attitudes (whatever the content of these may be….)?  And do those with disabilities readily and easily categorize themselves as ‘disabled’ in situations where they come into contact with ‘able-bodied’ individuals?* Do they identify as group members with others with disabilities – and do so regardless of the nature of the disability of that other?


Person with a teaching job, or person with a disability?

As you may imagine, my response to these questions is no, no, and no. It is impossible to see certain disabilities, however able-bodied you may be. So I cannot categorize others in this way. I do not readily categorize myself as disabled upon coming across an able-bodied person. I am much more likely to be focused on commonalities – my ‘researcher identity’ for example.  I don’t tend to see myself as a stigmatized outgroup member, nor did I feel, I had reason to – though certain researchers suggest (indirectly) otherwise. As for identification, yes, I identify with other members of various hemiplegia-related Facebook groups, but I do not identify with all others with disabilities, as opposed to non-disabled individuals.

Nevertheless, let us assume that the answer is yes. That ‘people with disabilities’ (note: NOT and NEVER ‘the disabled’: this is no longer PC) is a meaningful outgroup to non-disabled individuals, and that attitudes towards them need ameliorating, even among six year-olds. How helpful is this categorization? How helpful is it to make this categorization salient, as opposed to encouraging individual identities? To get to know people as people. This becomes even more important, surely, when it comes to disabilities, as no two people, even with the same disability, are going to have the same needs, wants and likes. And it is different needs in particular that worry people when it comes to disabilities….In sum, this categorization is just another projection of ‘normal’. We are normal, these people are not. Therefore they are different, they have different needs, wants and likes, and we need to be wary of contact with them. The very suggestion that those with disabilities are somehow outgroup members, is what  ironically, can induce anxiety and perpetuate contact avoidance and prejudice.

I would say then, the categorization as a stigmatized outgroup member is unhelpful. That the questions that researchers need to address instead, may be; what is it about this individual characteristic (or the stereotype associated with this individual) that is frightening, or leads to avoidance of contact? How can that be changed? What associations are made with the term ‘disability’ that push people away? What is the nature of the ‘prejudice’? And what is it about ‘contact’ that reduces unhelpful attitudes? The ‘multiple categorization’ method (Cameron, Rutland & Brown, 2007) goes someway to addressing my concern. Children here placed photo’s of “disabled” and “non-disabled” children on different dimensions “likes books”, “likes playing with the computer”, which must encourage identification with similar traits in the child – “they’re like us, really”. Yet, one still might also ask about the other half of the research design in all the studies I’ve seen: how do those with disabilities respond to able-bodied individuals? Surely to improve relations, pleasant contact has to be expected in both directions….what about the views of the stigmatized group?

But, if pleasant contact and positive attitudes are the end goal of such imagined contact research, I think it should go a step further. Instead of categorizing children (and encouraging children to categorize others) based on such essentialist criteria, as “disabled” or “non-disabled”, why not do away with the categorization altogether, and focus instead at the individual level? Nario-Redmond’s (2010) research shows that people readily focus on disability over other stereotypes – specifically, those with disabilities are stereotyped as “weak and incompetent, asexual and dependent”. This just is not helpful. Negative category stereotypes need to change – or individual identities made salient. At least in this particular instance, discourage group stereotyping and categorization (the lazy route) and encourage identification and be-friending based upon similarities. We know superordinate categorization can work to reduce prejudice, after all. Whether individual categorization is preferable is an empirical question, in the end; and the benefits may turn out to be outweighed by other effects. But the research needs to be done.

Thoughts welcome.

*Of course, some people with disabilities do strongly identify as disabled; particularly those involved in activism in relation to the rights of people with disabilities. Such activism is, however, brought about as a result of prejudice and stigma, not as an antecedent to it.


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